Second March on Blair Mountain (9/3/06)

The photograph of the Second March on Blair Mountain, a slide archived by Mary Hufford and dated August 26, 1999, was taken by Laura Forman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Council, who participated in the marchIt comes  from the Library of Congress archive exhibit, “Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia,”  part of the Coal River Folklife Collection at the LOC’s Archive of Folk Culture, at the American Folklife Center in Washington, D.C. I found Forman’s photo at  Appalachian Expedition, which shows the natural abundance of Blair Mountain.

With Misty’s Sunday Roanoke Times  on the kitchen island, I picked up the feature section, which ran a set of stories by Tim Thorton:

I hadn’t realized that the number of UMWA workers shrunk from 50,000 to 600, after the battle, or that the army had enthusiastically sent 17  planes to strafe American citizens.  But the  stories seemed odd because there was no context, no point of view.  Then I checked the  website.  It turns out that the Virginia section, which was no longer available by the time I looked for the rest of the paper, ran Thornton’s major article, “Mine it or enshrine it?
A new Blair Mountain battle pits groups that want to preserve it against ones that would tear it down”
 as part of its series on mountaintop removal.

That story provides the contect that this weekend  is the eighty-fifth anniversay of the U.S. Army march onto Blair Mountain to fight coal miners in Logan County, West Virginia trying to organize a union under the banner of the United Mine Workers of America.   The miners came up against state police, Logan County deputies, volunteers and conscripts  and finally, not just federal troops, but those airplanes.  Thornton writes,

Now the federal government is in the middle of a fight about the fate of Blair Mountain itself.

One side sees the mountain as hallowed ground, a battleground with a vital place in American history. The other sees it as a repository of billions of dollars worth of energy-generating, profit-producing coal. The first group wants to put the mountain on the National Register of Historic Places. The second wants to tear it down to get at the coal inside.

The place where West Virginia’s mine wars came to an end is being demolished by mountaintop-removal mining. And the battle over how far that mining will reach has been running for years.

Thornton reports that mining companies twice reached agreements with the United Mine Workers of America that

would have set aside about eight acres of the mountain to commemorate the battle and coal heritage. The plan included little more development than an observation tower.

“From this viewpoint, tourists will be able to link the past with the future,” a 1991 agreement said, “through a combination of signs and photos depicting the past while watching state-of-the-art surface mining equipment in a present day mine setting.”

Preservationists want, instead, to set aside 1,600 acres of the mountain without an observation tower and without any mining to observe. 

Greg Wooten, chief operating officer of Dingus-Rum Properties depicts the effort to set aside land on Blair Mountain as  

 simply an attempt by the Sierra Club to stop mining while cloaked in the robes of historic preservation.

Stuart McGehee, a historian who helped mining companies develop strategies continue mining the mountain claims 

There has been no ongoing effort by anybody.There is no Logan County Historical Society. There is no Friends of Blair Mountain. … They’ve never mounted any effort to do anything at Blair Mountain.

In fact, the only people who proposed to do any interpretation there are the coal companies — albeit after they’ve knocked the mountain down and got the coal out.

While it is true that the Sierra Club and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition have been fighting strip mining and support the preservation,  it is actually a small group of local people, according to Thornton,  who has been working, since at least 1991, to preserve the mountain.   Kenny King (NPR photo from a July story on Blair Mountain), involved with

 a state-sponsored study of the area, began to turn up artifacts of the battle: cartridges; buttons; bullets embedded in wood; a rusting revolver.  King, who had forebears on both sides of the 1921 battle, lives in Stollings, on the Logan side of the mountain. He works with James Weekley, who lives on the Blair side. Weekley formed the Blair Mountain Historical Organization in 1998. He organized a re-creation of the miners’ 1921 march from Marmet, just outside Charleston, to Blair Mountain.

“What I am doing is for the miners who have lost their life in the mines and in the Battle of Blair Mountain,” Weekley, a retired miner, said at his home outside Blair.

While the the coal companies want to deny their existence, Elizabeth Newberry in the May-June 2000 issue  Soujourner’s magazine story “16 Tons and What Do You Get? ”  noted,

James Weekley founded Blair Mountain Historical Organization in February 1999 after seeing the results of mountaintop removal from his front yard. “I saw the devastation of mountain, streams, and everything my grandfather worked for,” Weekley said. “I had to protect the future for my grandchildren and children.”

While the group’s main objective is to preserve Blair Mountain as a historic site and to use it as the base for eco-tourism, Weekley and other Blair coal-field residents sued the federal government for improper enforcement of surface mining regulations and the Clean Water Act of 1977. Last October, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Haden II ruled  [see Charleston Gazette’s archive on the ruling and subsequent appeals ]in favor of Weekley and the plaintiffs. Haden’s order could stop mountaintop removal as it is currently practiced.

Newberry quotes Julia Bonds, then an organizer with Coal River Mountain Watch in Raleigh County, West Virginia.

Most of us are poor. Home and water are all we have. We have no place other than our land to move to. We endure what the coal companies put us through.

Regarding requests for historic designation of scattered sites associated with the battle, Thornton reports that the West Virginia Archive and History Commission had rejected them.   But after more than a decade of trying,  the preservationists won a victory in May 2005 , at its meeting at  Chief Logan State Park, when the commission voted to send the nomination to set aside the 1,600 acres to the National Park Service. 

The minutes of that meeting note that  Frank Unger, a historian, had prepared the nomination for Battle of Blair Mountain Site, Logan County.  His presentation, “Myths and Lies,” 

 spoke to what he identified as misconceptions, myths and lies associated with the site by those opposed to its being listed on the National Register. He noted the significance of the ridge line being nominated as the defensive position of those forces opposing the miners march on Logan and its importance to American labor history, and cited examples and sources documenting the existence of logging roads and gas wells having an impact on the terrain at that time. He contended that the historical and current slides demonstrated that the property retained the essential physical features that enable it to convey its historic identity and the site’s integrity. He referred members to a brochure …demonstrating these features with an aerial photo of the Left Fork of Beech Creek, one of the important earlier advances by the union miners. He  emphasiz[ed] the importance of the battle to labor history, of the ridge line’s importance to the battle, and the remaining integrity of this line.

James Dao of the New York Times reported in his May 15, 2005 story, “A  New Campaign to Preserve an Old Mining Battlefield, “   that  the union’s unwillingness to help protect the entire mountain has frustrated King.

It’s their history. You’d think they’d want to save it.

Regarding testimony at the Commission meeting that the mountain had become a dump for discarded furniture and appliances, he replied, 

You can clean up the garbage. You can’t put a mountain back.

According to Dao,  in 1991 the UMWA initiated the preservation efforts, but withdrew its support in the late 1990’s, which resulted in King taking over the campaign, enlisting the help of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club.

The failure of a state commission nominated site is rare, according to Dao.  He says that  Paul Lusignan, a Park Service historian, reported that  the agency generally accepted “99 percent” of the nominations it received from state commissions.  But if the National Register decides Blair Mountain deserves to be listed, it would required a majority of the landowners for inclusion. 

Historic designation would make it more difficult, but not impossible to strip mine, according to Thornton.  The park service sent back the application to the commission,  saying in a letter, that while the historic importance of the battle is unquestionable, 

the struggle to define the locations, extent and comprehensive assessment of the physical integrity of these places continues.

Companies which want to mine Blair Mountain have sued the commission, claiming  not all landowners in the area received proper notification about the plans for the historic designation.  Other suits contest the mining permits those companies have and are seeking on and around Blair Mountain. Meanwhile , another mine has begun operations within sight of the mountain.

In January of this year, the  Commission put Blair Mountain on a list of 27 endangered historical sites in West Virginia.  In May, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the mountain one of the 11 most endangered historic sites in the nation

Over the years, various local efforts to preserve the battle site have been blocked by the coal companies that own or lease the property where the conflict occurred. Now coal companies appear intent upon strip-mining Spruce Fork Ridge, which would completely obliterate the well-preserved and intact site. Only by drawing national attention to the importance of the events at Blair Mountain is this threatened battlefield likely to be saved….

Past preservation efforts have failed because of fierce opposition from the coal companies that own or lease most of the ridge. Hobet Mining, Arch Coal, Massey Energy Company and Aracoma Coal Company, among others, are intent on strip-mining, which would destroy the battlefield. Permits for strip-mining are issued through the Army Corps of Engineers, which is subject to a federal preservation review process that provides for consideration of – but not necessarily protection of – historic sites.

Said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust.

It is particularly important, given the recent mining tragedies in West Virginia, that we not lose this symbol of the bravery and determination of union miners to improve their working conditions.  It is incumbent upon the property owners and preservationists to work together to permanently protect and interpret this little known but highly significant historic place.

His group hopes that by

increasing public awareness of the significance of the Blair Mountain battlefield, preservation advocates hope to win support for permanently protecting the site with easements and developing a economically sustainable interpretive program, possibly through the National Coal Heritage Area, which would allow the region to take advantage of West Virginia’s fastest-growing industry – tourism. An independent evaluation of alternate mining methods may illuminate means by which the site could be mined and preserved. The best possible solution would be a compromise between the property owners and preservationists that will save the site for interpretation, while bringing economic benefit to the owners and local residents.

The group’ has an article on King and his efforts.  It also has a petition to sign.

Regarding the National Park Service application, the West Virginia commission is waiting on a revised application from the preservationists.  According to  Susan Pierce, deputy state historic preservation officer,most of the revisions the commission requested are procedural and presentational.   The commission meets next on September 29, but Pierce says there is no deadline and she doesn’t know if the revisions will be ready by that time. 

According to Thornton, King has spent much of the summer building more evidence for the application, working with an archaeologist, documenting more sites involved in the battle.  King knows that his opponents are powerful. 

“They got the land,” they got the coal rights. They can sit on it for years, I guess.

I’m glad that Thornton reported on this story; my only quibble is that by his arrangement of the story, his ommission of any quotes by the National Trust for Historic Preservation  and his giving the last word to the coal companes’s historian, McGhee, he could pursuade a casual reader seeing this story and the ones in the feature section, to come away on the side of the coal companies.

The irony of company opposition to mountaintop removal harking back to other abuses is contained in the note describing the photograph:

To invoke the principles of democracy that informed the original march on Blair Mountain, and to call attention to the historic value of this contested site, the BMHO [Blair Mountain Historical Organization] and CRMW [Coal River Mountain Watch], with support from other citizen groups, including the Ohio Valley Environmental Council and Appalachian Voices, staged another march [on Blair Mountain.]

This march erupted into an unplanned dramatization of the historical conflict when the marchers were assaulted, kicked, and pelted en route by spectators who believed the march to be nothing more than a protest against mountaintop removal.

The  rest of the note:

In late August of 1999 the Blair Mountain Historical Organization and the Coal River Mountain Watch sponsored a commemorative march on Blair Mountain. The march, which took several days to complete, retraced the steps of ten thousand armed miners who marched to Blair Mountain in 1921 in order to force coal operators in Logan County to recognize the union. At that time, Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin was keeping the union out of his county with the help of “”thugs”” — Pinkerton detectives paid for by the coal companies. In the largest domestic military confrontation since the Civil War, the uprising was quelled with federal troops and bombers, and the union never did gain a foothold there until Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act into law more than a decade later.

In the wake of these events, Blair Mountain has come to represent a powerful moment in the struggle for workers’ rights. In the 1980s, the United Mineworkers Journal dubbed a UMW protest over plans to strip Blair Mountain the “”Second Battle of Blair Mountain.”” (“”The Second Battle of Blair Mountain,”” 1991) A UMWA effort to nominate Blair Mountain to the National Register of Historic Places resulted in a compromise between the Daltex and Sharples coal corporations and the UMWA. This compromise would allow Daltex and Sharples to stripmine the coal from Blair Mountain, in exchange for an eight-acre park and the creation of several historic sites. (Institute for the History of Technology and Industrial Archaeology, 1991). However, a plan to extract the remaining coal from Blair Mountain with union labor has been halted, pending the outcome of an appeal of a court case in which federal judge Charles Haden ruled that filling in perennial streams with mine waste violates the 100 foot stream buffer zone mandated by the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act.

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